Vietnam Night Buses: All You Need to Know
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Vietnam Night buses: All you need to know about getting around long-distance
Vietnam is an awkwardly shaped country. There’s no gentler way to say this. Super long, rather thin, and the perfect destination for travellers to spend countless hours on the country’s highways. If you’re short on time, I’ll go ahead and say that you should simply fly from A to B. It might save you a lot of time. But if you’re a budget traveller looking for a cheap way to get from one end of the country to the other, Vietnam night buses offer a great alternative.
Now let’s cut straight to the chase: most travelers’ first question concerns the safety and comfort aspects of night bus travel in Vietnam. And rightfully so – we have our fair share of uncomfortable rides in and out of Inle Lake, Myanmar and have heard multiple horror stories from fellow travellers about buses that transverse the Cambodia/Thailand border. Surely, there are bad apples everywhere. So, to settle your curious mind, I’ll address the most common aspects of long-distance bus travel in Vietnam, along with some things to expect, along with a handful of dos and don’ts.
Buying Vietnam overnight bus tickets
There are several way to buy your Vietnam bus tickets. The variables to consider are how much effort you’re willing to invest in getting the best price, how quickly you need to get your hands on a ticket, and how close you want to be to the source, so to speak.
Buying your ticket online
Hate human interaction or awkward language barriers? Don’t care to negotiate a bus ticket price? Then I’ve got good news for you – you can buy your overnight bus for Vietnam online! I’ve used Baolau for online bus booking a few times in the past and everything went smoothly. Additionally, in most cases you’ll be able to modify your bus ticket if needed, for instance if you need to change the date of travel. We’ve had a situation like this, and the customer service was very forthcoming and responded quickly. Just make sure to contact Baolau latest two days before your intended date of travel. The advantages of booking your Vietnam bus tickets online are:
- It’ll likely be cheaper than buying through a travel agent (unless you’re a tough negotiator)
- You’ll have the backup of English-speaking customer service support if needed
On the downside:
- Depending on the route and/or agreement with the bus company, you might not always be able to select your seat when buying a ticket online
Purchasing a sleeper bus ticket at a travel agency/kiosk
As is the case in many Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam sleeper bus ticket sales also sometimes go through a complicated chain of vendors before reaching the customer. You’ll find numerous travel offices around town in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, or Hanoi, whereby the vendor will always confirm availability on the phone first, and then book you on your desired route. The sale of the ticket takes place right then and there – you’ll receive a paper ticket from the vendor, knowing that they have reserved your seat on the phone. There are a few pros and cons to consider when buying Vietnam overnight bus ticket in a travel agent’s shop:
- You can just pop into the next travel kiosk and get your tickets sorted
- You receive a physical ticket – which might give some travelers a peace of mind – and there’s some room for negotiating the price down as well
- The ticket will likely include pickup at your hotel/hostel/guesthouse
- The vendor will add a profit margin + cost of pickup to the actual ticket price – so you’ll always overpay unless you negotiate
- Depending on where you are staying, hotel pickup might not even make sense (getting a Grab to the bus depot might be cheaper than the upprice charged for pickup)
Buying your ticket directly from the bus company
This isn’t very common, but it’s probably the closest you will get to not being ripped off, while having information about your ticket, price, seats, etc. straight from the horse’s mouth, as they say. The caveat is that:
- Many Vietnamese long-distance bus companies are hard to track down when looking for a physical office that also sells tickets.
- You will likely need to depend on telephone contact to reserve, meaning you’ll have to learn the ropes of how the locals do it – at least a little bit.
The majority of Vietnamese people actually reserve their bus tickets over the phone. Before they board the bus, they have to go to the ticket counter at one of these offices or at the bus terminal proper, and have the employees call up their reservation number in order to exchange it for a ticket. The phone-dependent aspect of this is, of course, the biggest disadvantage for foreigners who don’t speak any Vietnamese. The best way to mitigate this issue is to ask the hosts at your guesthouse or the receptionist at the hotel/hostel to call in a reservation for you. However, keep in mind that this will not include any pickup, and you will have to get to the bus terminal on your own.
Some companies do offer reservation online – but it’s more the exception than the rule. Look for FUTA for an easy online booking directly on their website, but have your phone ready in case they call you in case of any changes. (We were actually contacted due to an overbooked bus and agreed to be placed on a later one.) When you arrive at the bus terminal, you’ll still have to check in at the counter and swap your reservation for an actual ticket. Still beats talking on the phone, though!
Sleeper bus Safety and Security in Vietnam
There’s an inherent risk with ANY type of transport, and so being well aware of that as a traveler is the first step to having your expectations met. At the same time, some countries are notorious for their chaotic traffic, and Vietnam definitely is one of them. The “me” mentality prevails in Vietnam, and the bigger your vehicle, the better. That means that being on a bus gets you to your destination with more authority than driving a motorcycle, as smaller vehicles should always yield. What this also means is constant honking of the horn. To let the other drivers on the road know that you’re approaching, to make them get out of your way, to express frustration, etc.
In terms of sleeper bus safety, it’s truly hard to judge what one should be cautious of. It’s not like you’ll be able to swap drivers or pick a different one that looks like a ‘better’ driver out of a lineup before the bus takes off. From personal experience, we’ve had some hectic rides with a lot of (from my western point of view) risky overtaking or merging, but nothing that would put the passengers in harm’s way. But I will say this: doing a thorough research (either online or simply by asking travel agents on which bus company they recommend) should get you started with picking a solid bus line.
How to ‘Ride’ a sleeper bus
The sleeper buses are made to accommodate a, let’s say, medium-sized human in a reclining position. Not the world’s most comfortable setup, but it beats sitting.
You’ll usually get a blanket, and the seat typically has a built-in/attached pillow. Some companies give out complimentary water and a wet towel. Yes, you’ll be confined to 1 vehicle for a number of hours, but bathroom and/or snack breaks are fairly frequent – about every 2 hours or so. To keep it short, here are some dos and don’ts for your next long-distance bus:
- Take off your shoes when you first enter the bus.
- Bring or buy some snacks for the way.
- Bring some entertainment.
- Bring earplugs, some toilet paper, and hold on to those wet towels.
- Keep your follow-up travel somewhat flexible.
In Vietnam you take off your shoes inside a house, so the same rule applies here. Besides, you’ll take your shoes off in your ‘bunk’, and it’d be gross if the aisle was covered in everyone’s shoe grime and dirt once you’re in your socks. Just put them in the provided bag and tuck em away.
Eating and drinking is allowed on the bus, so no worries. Just be considerate when wanting to eat something extra stinky, perhaps.
Download some Netflix, crank up your favorite playlists, or binge read a book – up to you. Most buses have single bunks, meaning you probably won’t be able to chat up a storm with your travel buddies when traveling at night. (However, some buses’ back bunks are set up like 2 double beds – so this is perfect for a group.)
If you have no issues falling asleep whatsoever, consider yourself a winner. If not, the constant honking might jolt you out of your slumber more often than you’d like. Also, not all of the bathroom stops will have state of the art toilet facilities. Actually, some are downright grim. Be ready for anything and always have some extra TP on hand, in addition to some hand wipes and/or sanitizer. Most places will have sinks and all, but no soap.
Delays can happen (though we haven’t really experienced any), so keep that in mind when planning any activities at your destination. Conversely, you might also end up arriving early! This happened to us when we arrived in Nihn Bin at 3:45 am instead of 6 am. Luckily, there were 2 cabs at the drop-off point, and our super nice host at Tuyet’s Homestay near Tam Coc let us check in at the crack of dawn.
- Put your shoes back on at every rest stop.
- Don’t leave any valuables in the luggage stored in the cargo hold.
- Don’t leave the backpack with your belongings unattended.
- Don’t let sleep ruin your trip.
The bus driver will provide flip-flops for the purpose of quickly getting on and off the bus. Usually there’ll be a basket of them waiting at the door as you get off.
This is a simple concept, but many people still fail to follow through on this and end up with their shit stolen: don’t leave anything that’s dear to you in your big suitcase/backpack. Opportunists with sticky fingers can crop up everywhere – especially in an unattended space full of other people’s stuff. Plus, careless backpackers are way too easy of a target. Passports, money, cards, gadgets, etc – stow all that away in a smaller backpack that you keep with you.
Every rest stop is an opportunity for someone on the bus to get their hands on whatever you left behind while taking a bathroom break. Be aware of that. No one will take your smelly sweater or the bag with old shoes but be mindful of that backpack with your valuables. Take it with you, or take turns keeping an eye on things with your travel buddy.
People have had their stuff stolen while being just inches away from their bad – while asleep. Be aware of that and take precaution. That backpack you stuffed full of your valuables? Lock that shit up with a handy travel padlock or put it somewhere where it will be hard to get to without waking you up.
Conclusion: It’s a fine way to get around. Just use some common sense
All in all, we found Vietnam sleeper buses to be a comfortable and economic alternative to domestic flights. We didn’t really have a negative experience. The only somewhat inconvenient moment was during a ride departing from Hoi An, where everyone was yelled at by the driver to go sit in the back because he need to keep the seats in the front free for some unknown reason, followed by a change in Hue to a different bus that no one told us about beforehand, and where the different bus employees also couldn’t provide simple information (one kept saying ‘Yes, get on this bus’, while the other kept telling us to wait for another one). This could have been avoided if we had booked the Hoi An – Nihn Binh route online. This way we would have seen the details of the ride, instead of getting a combined ticket through our guesthouse where we only received a verbal confirmation relayed over the phone. You live and you learn. Convinced to give the bus a shot? If so, get to know some wonderful places like Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, or Hanoi!